Memory, regression and multiple languages in the works of Ribot (1881) and Rush (1812)

Marjorie Perlman LORCH
School of Languages, Linguistics and Culture, Birkbeck College, University of London, England
m.lorch AT

The short passage contained in Théodule Ribot’s book on Diseases of Memory (Les maladies de la mémoire, 1881; English Translation, 1882) on the language abilities of second language learners in later life form the foundation of our modern understanding of the neurolinguistics of bilingualism. The book presents a detailed investigation of memory impairments of various sorts and offers a number of axiomatic principles derived from the pathological cases to explain the workings of memory in general.  The ‘law of regression’, now referred to as Ribot’s Law, predicts the gradient of forgetting from the most recent to the oldest memories.  Ribot’s Law has been formatively applied to a variety of phenomena in neuropsychology in the past century, notably influencing Freud (1915). Within the field of aphasia, his formulation of selective recovery of languages in multilingual speakers with language disturbances is still employed today. However, in Ribot’s work a significant distinction was drawn between disorders in monolingual and multilingual speakers which appears to have been lost. Impairments in language which he classified as aphasia are discussed under the classification of “partial amnesia”.  However, impairments in language with respect to those who had learned multiple languages were classified as “exaltations of memory, or hyperamnesias”.  Examination of Ribot’s writings reveals a distinct conceptual approach to memory, learning and aging from that assumed today.

This paper will critically examine these ideas and analyse the sources of Ribot’s conceptualization by placing his work in its historical context, and tracing the antecedents of his theories through the authors he cited, in particular, those of Benjamin Rush (1812).   Detailed consideration of Ribot’s original thesis provides a new the perspective on current research on bilingual speakers which is predicated on a different set of theoretical assumptions.

Session IIa
Thursday, 22 June 2006, 3.30 - 4.00 pm

11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Pavia, Italy, 2006